Authors: Anne Perry
She put the paper down and stared across the kitchen in disquiet.
Gracie came in from the back step and looked at her. “Wot’s ’appened?” she said anxiously. “Summink bad?” When she had first come to Charlotte, she could neither read nor write. Now, with Charlotte’s help, she was quite good at both. She made it a habit to read at least two articles in the newspaper every day. Now she looked at Denoon’s paper skeptically, and at the cold tea in Charlotte’s cup. “There’s never bin another bombing?” she said with disbelief.
“No,” Charlotte answered quickly. “It’s the editor calling for more guns for the police, and more rights to search people’s houses.”
Gracie set down the vegetables on the draining board of the sink. “Well, if people ’ave got bombs an’ guns, police can’t fight ’em wi’ sticks,” she said reasonably. Then she frowned. “Mind, I wouldn’t like ter think o’ Mr. Pitt wi’ a gun. Can’t ’ave it in the ’ouse—they in’t safe!” The downward tone of her voice reflected her distaste for the entire idea. “Why ’ave some people always got ter be making trouble?”
“It’s usually only trouble that makes us change things,” Charlotte replied. That was true, but it did not answer what Gracie was asking. “If somebody tips rubbish out in your street,” she went on, “or makes a noise late at night, if you don’t complain, they’ll go on doing it.” She smiled as she saw the temper flare in Gracie’s eyes. She had chosen the subject of rubbish deliberately.
Gracie realized it and grinned; then the laughter vanished and profound gravity took its place. “But if I went an’ shot the stupid little article wot’s leaving it out there, I’d be put in jail, an’ right thing too. I give ’er a piece o’ me mind, but I never touched ’er.” The grin of triumph returned. “She won’t go do it again, mind!”
“Of course,” Charlotte conceded. “Anarchy is wrong, and it’s ridiculous. But I’m not at all sure that giving the police guns is the solution. And I’m quite sure that giving them more power to go into people’s houses looking for evidence, unless they have a good reason to believe it’s there, is only going to make everyone angry, and even less likely to help.”
“Is that what Mr. Pitt says?” Gracie asked, doubt flickering in her eyes.
“Actually he was too tired to say anything,” Charlotte admitted. “And he hasn’t seen this yet. But I think it’s what he will say.”
Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould sat at her breakfast table looking at the same newspaper, also with feelings of distress, but hers were caused by different aspects of the tragedy. The name of Lord Landsborough had caught her eye immediately, and sharp, sweet memory flooded in from the past. They had first met over forty years ago, at a reception at Buckingham Palace. Both had been married ten or twelve years and were restless and a trifle bored with the same social round, the same gossip, and the same opinions.
Landsborough then had been an idealist, a believer in the innate decency of people, and filled with optimism that great good could be accomplished if more government were given into their hands, more freedom to decide their own destiny. He had been elegant, effortlessly well-dressed, and possessed an easy charm that concealed a greater sensitivity than he allowed most people to know.
His wife, Cordelia, was darkly beautiful, ambitious, and, in Vespasia’s view, colder than a winter night. They had taken an instant and well-founded dislike to each other, and concealed it with icy good wishes and the most meticulous courtesy. Neither ever made a social mistake, or was caught less than perfectly dressed, jewels blazing, every hair exquisitely in place.
Vespasia herself had found her marriage not uncomfortable, but neither was her husband the love of her life. That had been Mario Corena, the Italian patriot and hero of the ’48 revolution in Rome. Happiness between them had been impossible for reasons neither could overcome, but the memory of his idealism, courage, and sacrifice—and of one dazzling season of hope—had never faded.
Then last year they had met again, briefly, when Mario had deliberately given his life to foil Charles Voisey’s plot to overthrow the throne of England. It had been a beautiful and terrible decision. Vespasia had had her revenge upon Voisey, but at a cost she would never forget.
But all those years ago when she had met Sheridan Landsborough, his gentle humor and his wry radicalism had appealed to her. He had shown a moderation, a tolerance, and an almost innocent trust in decency. And her wit, her regal and lonely beauty had awoken something in him. Cordelia had been striking, but Vespasia had turned heads and stirred hearts in every court in Europe. She had had the passion, the intelligence, and the courage to dare anything.
Now she sat alone in the early-morning sunshine in her breakfast room and read that Sheridan had lost his only son, and she felt an intense sadness for him. The years since their last meeting vanished, and even Cordelia’s dislike seemed irrelevant. She must write and convey her sympathy. In fact, merely sending a letter through the post was inadequate. She would take it personally.
She rose and walked to the fireplace beside which hung the bell rope to summon the maid. She pulled it and remained standing until it was answered.
“Gwyneth, please put out black for me,” she requested, then changed her mind. “No, that is too severe: dark gray. And tell Charles I shall require the carriage at ten o’clock. I shall be calling upon Lord and Lady Landsborough to offer my condolences.”
“I’m sorry, my lady,” Gwyneth replied. She had not heard the news and had no idea to what Vespasia was referring. “Will the dark gray silk be right? And the hat with the black ostrich feather?”
“Excellent. Thank you. I shall write a letter, then I shall be up.”
“Yes, my lady.”
Gwyneth withdrew, and Vespasia walked across the hall to the morning room where her escritoire held pen, ink, and paper.
It was always difficult to know what to say in such circumstances. For Cordelia the most formal of expressions would be correct, but for Sheridan, whom she had known so well, it would sound stilted and absurd, in a way worse than nothing at all.
She sat at the escritoire in the cool, green light of the room. The sun beyond the curtains was filtered by leaves.
My dear Sheridan and Cordelia,
I heard today of your loss and I am dismayed at the pain you must feel. I wish I could offer help, words of comfort and assurance, but I know that grief has simply to be endured. But if faith and friendship can give you anything of worth, now or in the future, please call upon me. I shall always be at your service.
She folded it, placed it in an envelope, and sealed it. She did not reread it or wonder if it was elegantly or appropriately phrased. It was honest, and that was all she could attempt. If she weighed what Cordelia might make of it, she would never send anything.
Upstairs, she changed into the dark gray silk and surveyed herself in the glass.
“You look beautiful, my lady,” Gwyneth said from behind her.
She was right. Vespasia was tall and still slender. Her aquiline features and fine, pale skin were flattered by the cool colors. As always she wore ropes of pearls around her neck, complementing the silver crown of her hair. The dress itself was in the latest cut, narrow at the waist, full sleeved at the shoulder, slender at the hip but flaring more widely at the knee and to the ground. The jacket had the fashionable very wide lapels.
Gwyneth set the hat upon her head and offered her the gray kid gloves, which were softer than velvet. A small, gray silk reticule carried a handkerchief, a few calling cards, and the letter.
It was a short journey, no more than fifteen minutes to the Landsboroughs’ house in Stenhope Street near Regents Park. Vespasia alighted from her carriage and went to the front door, the letter in her hand. It was opened within moments and an elderly butler regarded her with courteous inquiry. He recognized the coat of arms on her carriage door, and greeted her by name.
“Good morning,” she replied. “I am sure the family is not receiving callers, but I prefer to pass my letter of condolences to you rather than send it through the post. Would you be good enough to tell Lord and Lady Landsborough that they have my deepest sympathy?”
“Of course, my lady.” He held out the silver tray and she placed the envelope on it. “Thank you. It is most gracious of you to come in person. If you would care to step inside, I shall pass your letter to Lady Landsborough. She may wish to acknowledge it.” He stepped back.
“I do not wish to put her to trouble.” Vespasia remained on the step.
“It would be no trouble at all, my lady,” he answered. “But if you are previously engaged, then…”
“Not at all,” she said honestly. “I came out only for this purpose.” It would now be rude to decline. She followed him inside. There was black crepe in the hall. The long-cased clock had been stopped, the mirrors had been turned to the wall. She was shown into the morning room, where no fire had been lit. There were white flowers on the table, ghostly in the half-light through lowered blinds.
There was nothing to do but wait until the butler should return and convey Cordelia’s thanks; then she would be free to leave. She did not wish to sit down; it seemed inappropriate, as if she expected to stay. One did not make oneself comfortable in such circumstances.
She looked around idly, trying to remember if it had been just the same all those years ago when she had been a frequent visitor here. The bookcase had been here then, the glass reflecting back so the titles were unreadable. The picture of Venetian canals over the mantel was the one she knew. She had always thought it a genuine Canaletto, but had never been frank enough to ask. She could not imagine Sheridan Landsborough having anything less.
The house was very quiet, as if its usual business of cleaning and errands had been suspended. The sound of horses’ hooves in the street outside was audible.
The door opened and she turned, expecting the butler, but it was Cordelia herself who stood there. She had changed little since the last time Vespasia had seen her, perhaps a couple of years ago. There was a hint of more white in her dark hair, but in broad, handsome streaks, not a fading to pepper and salt. Her features were still strong. She was less firm of jaw; the skin of her throat had withered and even a high-necked gown could not completely hide it. Shock had bleached her face today, and naturally she wore unrelieved black.
“It was good of you to come, Vespasia,” she said, instantly establishing a familiarity that had not existed between them for years. “It is a time when one needs one’s friends.” She glanced around. “This room is chilly. Would you prefer to come into the withdrawing room? It faces the garden and is far pleasanter.” She was allowing Vespasia the opportunity to excuse herself, and yet after such a plea to friendship, that would be a deliberate rebuff.
“Thank you,” Vespasia accepted.
Cordelia led the way across the hall and into a warmer, far more agreeable room. It still carried all the marks of mourning, but it was several degrees warmer, and the sunlight coming through the half-drawn curtains made bright patterns on the wine-and-blue carpet.
Vespasia’s mind was racing as to why Cordelia had asked her to remain. They had never been friends, nor was she a woman to confide either joy or sorrow in someone else.
They sat on huge, soft sofas opposite each other in the flickering sunlight. It was Cordelia who broke the silence.
“Sometimes it takes a tragedy of this magnitude to make one realize what is happening,” she said gravely. “One sees things eroded little by little, and each step is so small it hardly registers in one’s mind.”
Vespasia had no idea what she was referring to. She waited patiently, her face a mask of polite interest.
“If you had told me ten years ago that police would be having gun battles with anarchists in the streets of London,” Cordelia continued, “I should have said you were mad. Indeed, I would have said you were a political alarmist, almost certainly with some purpose of your own in trying to frighten people.” She took a deep breath. “Now we are forced to admit that it is the truth. There are madmen in our society who are bent upon destroying it, and the police need all our support, morally and materially.”
Vespasia thought of Pitt, whom she had known since her great-nephew had married Charlotte’s sister Emily. George had been killed, and Emily had married again, but the friendship had continued and grown stronger. “Yes, indeed,” she said aloud. “Theirs is a difficult and frequently thankless task.”
“And dangerous,” Cordelia added. “A young policeman was shot in the battle. But for the courage and quick thinking of his fellows, he would have bled to death there in the street.”
“Yes.” Vespasia had read the account in two newspapers. “But it appears he will recover.”
“This time,” Cordelia conceded. “But what of the future?” She looked at Vespasia earnestly, her face grave, her back ramrod stiff. “We need more police, and they must be better armed. We must not handicap them with antique laws framed for a more peaceful age. London is now teeming with foreigners of all sorts, men with wild ideas of revolution, anarchy, even socialism. And to institute their own insanities upon us they have made it plain that they intend to destroy what we have, and terrorize us into accepting their will.” Her eyes were brilliant with grief and rage. “As long as I draw breath, I will not let that happen! I will fight with every influence I have to see that we uphold and assist them to protect us and all we believe.” She watched Vespasia intently.
Vespasia felt a vague shadow of discomfort. It was so nebulous she could not be sure if it was something Cordelia had said, or the embarrassment of not being able to say anything that would address the real issue of her grief. Cordelia had had only one child, and yesterday he had been killed. Vespasia had several children and they were all alive and well. They were all married; she saw them seldom, but she kept a warm correspondence with each. It was absurd to feel guilty because she had so much more than this furious woman opposite her. Cordelia was trying to come to terms with her pain by turning it into anger, and a crusade, which would occupy her mind and her energy, and perhaps blunt the raw edge of her emotions with exhaustion.